If you turned on any American news channel last fall, you likely caught a clip highlighting presidential hopefuls making the rounds between Iowa and New Hampshire. If you looked closer at those clips, and you would have seen a distinct lack of diversity in the audience of these highly televised events. Where were the people of color? The answer: They were left behind in America’s great political race.
When Barack Obama became the first president of color in 2008, it felt like we had finally moved past the impasse that had plagued us for so long. Black American voters turned out in historically high numbers to elect President Obama and re-elected him four years later. People of color and other marginalized communities finally felt recognized. It seemed as though the electoral system heard the voice of America’s diverse electorate.
Eight years following that historical moment, the country backslid and elected—not by popular vote—a leader who openly uses xenophobic and racist language targeting marginalized groups. With only one African American and no Hispanics, President Trump’s 2017 cabinet was 86.4 percent white, signaling that the voice of people of color is nowhere in sight. While the country continues to grow more diverse, the representation in our governing bodies has yet to catch up.
In 1972, when the Iowa Caucuses first came to prominence, the United States was 87.5 percent white, and a little more than half of all Americans lived in the Midwest or Northeast. In the years leading up to 2018, the share of America’s white population dropped drastically to 60.5 percent, with a majority of the increasingly diverse citizenry living well outside of the middle of the country. Yet, Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states that cater to predominantly white populations stay at the forefront of American politics.
The first states to host contests in a presidential election set the tone for every state that follows. When those first voters only represent a portion of the country’s demographic, they set an agenda in favor of that demographic—leaving others far behind. When marginalized communities are left out of the very process that selects the political system leaders, the consequences don’t only affect their communities. How can the process be genuinely democratic when so much power is held in the hands of a small group of people? It can’t. Rural America is not only white. Urban America is not only white. America is not only white. It’s time that our process to select presidential nominees reflects that.
One way to address this lack of representation in the electoral process would be to make sure the first primary states rotate. There’s no reason—other than maintaining an outdated status-quo—to keep Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the race. In recent years, South Carolina, a state with a large black population, has been gaining traction in helping to determine the next democratic presidential nominee. Why shouldn’t a state that better represents the diversity of the people go first?
Representation in the electoral process matters, and fixing this problem isn’t just a responsibility of the voters. When the system works against us, there is only so much we can do. The bodies governing the two major political parties, the agenda setters for the caucuses and primaries, must do a better job to break out of this old and tired system. The media must do a better job of accurately portraying the diversity of the country and must stop whitewashing areas of the country where large populations of people of color live.
Until we build an electoral system that includes everyone and doesn’t prioritize the needs of a slowly declining population relative to others, the American democratic project will continue to decline. The country will continue to grow diverse, and it will be for the better—but only if we make sure our electoral system keeps up with that growing diversity.